There’s a few different fabrics that can be used for clothing and textiles that are claimed to be sustainable or eco friendly.
In this short guide, we look at how Hemp rates in terms of sustainability and eco friendliness according to different measures.
Summary – How Sustainable & Eco Friendly Is Hemp For Clothing, Fabric & Textiles?
Growing hemp is generally sustainable and eco friendly because it usually doesn’t need as much water as other crops like regular cotton, and it also needs few pesticides compared to other fibres like regular cotton.
It’s also renewable, good for the soil, and is good at sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
It may not receive as much subsidy from the government compared to a plant like cotton in some countries either – which is a consideration in it’s own right.
The problems with Hemp are that separating fibre from the plant can take time, hemp spinning is less efficient than cotton spinning (and can involve chemicals when companies try to do it quickly and cheaply), dyes can be used for coloring, and Hemp can be more expensive than other fibres.
New technology is constantly being developed for better retting (separating the fibre from the plant) and better processing the fibre in the processing plants.
Hemp can also constrict the growth of other plants out in the wild – making it similar to a weed in some ways.
There’s some restrictions in some countries in terms of what Hemp is allowed to be grown for, and you have to have different licenses to grow it or sell it for different things. This differs by country and state within a country as well.
A problem that countries outside China can face is that China can grow Hemp so competitively in an economic sense. Other countries can struggle to compete from the perspective of being competitive on production price.
So, there can be price based, legal based and practical based restrictions or limitations on Hemp fibre. In regards to the practical based restriction – it is how efficiently and quickly it can be harvested and processed.
Hemp might be better environmentally than regular cotton for example (because of less pesticides, less water and lesser land requirements), but there may be better eco friendly and sustainable options overall such as organic cotton, Tencel/lyocell, other organic options, or even a Hemp that has been certified to not use chemicals, dyes or other potentially harmful or synthetic chemicals at the processing stage.
Some sources indicate that for overall sustainability, it might be worth looking at GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% natural linen, and companies that are very transparent with their supply and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), with TENCEL’s lyocell and modal fibres being one potential example of this. But, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well. Some bamboos and hemps could be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes, naturally derived production chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco friendly post-growing processes and chemicals used.
The above summary and the information found in this guide is a generalisation only.
* Note that hemp growing/farming, and processing may differ by country, especially between the first world and developing world countries.
* Different conditions, climates, soils, farming technology, farming methods and other factors can impact how well Hemp grows, and different factories and processing plants have different procedures.
These factors and others can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness of any particular product.
There’s also the social impact, economics and practicality to consider. Just because something is eco friendly and sustainable to produce – it doesn’t mean that it is good for employment, profitable or even practical to produce (for businesses and workers) or use (for consumers). So, there can be a weighing up of product priorities, preferences (for buyers, sellers, and society) and conflicts of interest to consider (political and corporate agendas can sometimes play a part too for example).
How Much Water Is Used To Grow & Produce/Manufacture Hemp
Hemp uses water in the growing stage, but can also use water in the processing stage, like for example when hemp fibre is being turned into fabric.
- Compared to cotton, the hemp plant’s water usage is drastically better. It can take over 5,000 gallons to produce only 2.2 pounds of cotton, whereas it takes less than 700 gallons to produce 2.2 pounds of hemp.
- There are some myths around hemp plants and the amount of water they need [it needs more water than people think]
- Hemp won’t grow in an area without irrigation unless you have rainfall
- Hemp plants need roughly 6 gallons of water per week to thrive
- Hemp requires at least 20-30 inches of rainfall during the growing period, and irrigation is necessary if precipitation is less than adequate.
- Hemp takes half as much water as corn and other agricultural products
Carbon Footprint Of Hemp, & How Much Energy It Uses
Hemp can use energy in the growing phase for fertilizer and harvesting machinery. It can also use energy in the processing stage. But, Hemp is generally better at removing carbon from the atmosphere at the growing stage – this is one of it’s big benefits.
- Hemp removes 1.63 tons of CO2 [from the atmosphere] per ton of hemp, and in 2016 alone, Colorado has planted over 8,700 acres of the industrial hemp crop, resulting in an average of 10 tons per acre of carbon dioxide being removed from our atmosphere.
How Many Pesticides Does Hemp Need To Grow?
- Hemp does not require the use of herbicides or pesticides.
- …The acres are thick enough in density of plants that it deters pests and competing weeds … hemp is typically grown anywhere between 250,000 to 500,00 plants per acre.
- While most crops require the use of pesticides in order to survive and thrive, hemp, or Cannabis sativa, is considered rare because it doesn’t.
- Hemp is naturally resistant to most pests, negating the need for any pesticides.
How Much Fertilizer Does Hemp Need?
- Hemp has similar nutrient needs as canola and especially requires added nitrogen … with 15% additional nitrogen.
- Conventional NPKS (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulfur) fertilization is recommended at the same levels required to grow rapeseed.
Hemp & Land Degradation & Soil Health
Hemp is generally good for soil health. There are some reports that Hemp can grow in any type of soil but this is generally not always true it seems. Hemp tends to do well in good quality soil, and in America, Hemp tends to do well in soils in the Corn belt i.e. where Corn is grown.
- Hemp is carbon neutral or carbon positive, meaning it puts more nutrients back into the soil than it takes out.
- It also breathes carbon dioxide and expels oxygen.
- Hemp generally needs soil with good organic matter to grow well
- It needs well aerated, loamy soils, and does best when organic matter is greater than 3.5%.
- It doesn’t tend to do well in wet soils or clay type soils
- [Hemp] requires very little fertilizer and during the “retting” process when fibers are separated from the stalk, up to 70% of the nutrients from the plant is returned to the soil.
- The plant also has long roots, so prevents soil erosion and aerates the soil.
The Yield Of Hemp Crops
Yield is an important measure of the efficient use of resources – which is important to measure if you want to be sustainable with resources, inputs and the whole growing and production process.
- Hemp is typically grown anywhere between 250,000 to 500,00 plants per acre.
- You get roughly 40 to 50 pounds of hemp per acre
- Per acre, hemp produces up to 250% more fiber than cotton (and flax). It’s a high yield fibre
- With fiber, hemp should bring a minimum yield of 6,000 lbs. per acre, but … [also] 5 tons per acre.
- Hemp produces 250% more yield per acre than cotton and 600% more than flax.
This means you can grow more hemp, or you can diversify to other crops with your left over land
How Many Chemicals Does Hemp Use In The Processing Stage
If Hemp is processed mechanically, it will use few.
But, some companies and supply chains may use chemicals on the fibre, and may also dye hemp afterwards to achieve better or other colors i.e. use chemical processing.
So, it has potential for chemical and dye usage.
Pollution Of Water, Air & Land/Soil By Hemp
The growing stage of Hemp is generally quite eco friendly compared to other fibre crops.
The growing stage is where most of the eco damage tends to occur for most fibres (with the use of agricultural chemicals and so on), so this is a good thing.
But, Hemp does have the potential for pollution with fertilizer nitrogen run off into soil and water at the growing stage.
There is also potential for water pollution if chemicals and dyes are used in the processing stage (and they aren’t treated properly).
It’s also worth noting that Hemp has the potential to limit crop and plant diversity to an extent out in the field because it’s so effective at eliminating weeds and other plant species when it grows. So, this is a consideration.
Impact Of Growing Hemp On Humans and Human Health
One big benefit of Hemp is that pesticides generally don’t have to be used, or they aren’t used in big quantities if they are.
This probably means Hemp is better for human health than say regular cotton which uses a lot of pesticides.
Insecticides and herbicides not only can impact human health in developing countries by making direct contact with farm workers (via breathing in or getting in on the skin), but it can get in the air, water and soil, and may stay on the fibres into the processing stage.
Impact Of Growing Hemp On Animals & Wildlife
Probably not as much as say for example regular cotton which uses a lot of pesticides that can impact secondary pests or non target animals.
But, there is still probably some impact on animals via water pollution, and run-off of fertilizer nitrogen and chemicals.
A Case Study On The Overall Inputs & Resources Required To Grow & Make Hemp Products & Textiles
- A study compared the water, land, and energy requirements of cotton, polyester, and hemp textiles.
- Different production techniques … can significantly increase or reduce the impact [of one supply chain that produces a particular fibre].
- Pesticides and herbicides account for more than one-half of the energy in farming either hemp or cotton … and organic methods are responsible for less carbon-dioxide emissions.
- Organic cotton required less energy than organic hemp, but the margin was fairly small. Polyester, a petroleum-based synthetic fabric, was the clear loser by a 3-1 margin, because it takes so much energy to extract the oil required to make it.
- While cotton requires less energy to grow and process than its competitors, it uses a lot of land. [Cotton] needs approximately twice as much territory as hemp per ton of finished textile …
- While organic farmers can save on energy by cutting synthetic pesticides and herbicides, their yield per acre drops.
- Polyester, a synthetic fabric made from petroleum, does almost as well as hemp on land use. Apparently, you can get more fabric from an oil field than a cotton field.
- The cotton plant needs about 50 percent more water per season than hemp, which can grow with little irrigation. (It’s so prolific that the overwhelming majority (PDF) of cannabis plants uprooted by the Drug Enforcement Administration every year are a wild relative of hemp. It’s no coincidence they call the stuff weed.) Cotton also tends to be grown in parts of the world where water is scarce. More than one-half of the world’s cotton fields rely on irrigation, because it grows in some relatively dry regions, like Egypt, China’s Xinjiang province, California, and Texas.
- When you add processing into the equation, cotton uses more than four times as much water as hemp. Polyester is difficult to compare, because it’s not an agricultural product. But some studies suggest it’s the least water-intensive of the bunch, using just one-thousandth as much water as cotton. (In fact, water is a byproduct of polyester processing.)
- There’s an argument to make for polyester, but the non-renewability of synthetic textiles raises serious concerns. Overall, hemp appears to be slightly easier on the environment than cotton, considering it’s superior on water and land requirements, and only slightly worse for energy use.
– slate.com, and sei.org
What Is The Status Of Hemp In The US Right Now?
As of 29th December 2018:
- A new Farm Bill 2018 has been made law
- Though the Farm Bill is now law, legalizing hemp won’t happen overnight. Until the Department of Agriculture finalizes its hemp policies, the rules of the 2014 Farm Bill will continue to officially apply.
- Regulation of hemp will now fall under the USDA [under the new Bill] instead of the DEA [like under the old Bill]
- the USDA will set national policies for the crop
- the states can set more restrictive regulations, including banning hemp growing [in their own state]. It also protects the rights of Native American tribes to grow, or not grow, hemp on their lands. However, neither tribes nor states can interfere with interstate commerce surrounding hemp.
There are still issues and policies to finalise, but the 2018 Farm Bill brings about change and more freedom in the Hemp industry